Research is proving, a wandering mind is not a happy mind. A study done by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that 47% of the time, people were thinking about something other than what they were actually doing, and regardless of whether the wandering thoughts were positive or negative in nature, the more thinking time spent out of the present moment related to greater unhappiness (Killingsworth, M. and Gilbert, D., 2010). Considering these results and the increasing prevalence of depression and other mood disorders, it makes sense we learn strategies to interrupt and steer our wandering minds. Yoga and mindfulness can help you get there.
You might be wondering what is so bad about a wandering mind. For this, consider where your thoughts go when left to wander. The mind ruminates on past events; it elaborates in self-evaluation, comparing, and judging; it daydreams and imagines future scenarios (often negative); and it assigns stories to experiences. Wandering minds jump from direct experience into elaboration – taking you from the present moment into the past, future, or fantasy. As much as this can contribute to creativity, when left unchecked, the wandering mind develops habits of analyzing and projecting negatively towards ourselves and others, making it a very unhealthy addiction.
So, if being lost in our thoughts is making us unhappy, it is important to learn ways to lessen the mind’s natural inclination towards wandering. Ultimately this is about interrupting the moments when we get lost in thought and learning how to redirect ourselves back to the immediate experience, in other words, becoming more mindful. We can do this by accessing our senses – take a couple deep breaths and feel the sensation of the breath moving, smell the air, scan your environment, feel the weight of your feet on the ground, etc. We can also do this by immersing ourselves in the states of creative flow, choosing activities where we are totally absorbed into the experience of the activity, e.g., music, dance, art, gardening, etc.
In yoga and meditation, we practice embodied mindfulness, which is particularly helpful for interrupting the wandering mind. Embodied mindfulness is simply being aware of body experiences as they happen, and we learn to do this without narrating, evaluating, or judging what we are sensing. By noticing what you feel in your body, we teach ourselves to come back to the present moment through the internal sensations, heightening our interoceptive abilities. Embodied mindfulness also helps us build emotional resilience (Bo Forbes, The Neuroscience of Depression (boforbes.com). Regularly checking in to what you notice in your body, without needing to control, change or fix what we feel, gives space for the emotions to be there and helps them move in our bodies, and this can interrupt a cycle of rumination or feelings getting “stuck”.
Try these practices to strengthen your mindfulness skills and “rein-in” the wandering mind:
- Body-based Check-ins: Embodied mindfulness is a skill that can be practiced and it doesn’t have to be reserved to yoga class. You can do a couple minute practice anytime in your day.
Start by settling your attention inwardly (it is helpful to close your eyes) and sense what you notice in your body (without the need to interpret, control, change or fix what it is that you feel). E.g., Do you have tension anywhere? How does your breath feel? Are there any feelings or emotions present and where do you feel this in your body? Are there any other sensations are present in your body and where? If at any time, you come across difficult feelings, see if you can meet them with self compassion. Try breathing into the feeling and notice how it shifts and changes over time.
- Mindfulness Meditation with Mental Labeling: In this style of meditation, you are developing the brain’s capacity to recognize when it has wandered off and to learn your habits of what types of thoughts you are ruminating on (giving you insight). Lastly, it gives you practice to how to let go of thoughts.
Find a comfortable seat, set a timer for 5-10 minutes, and close your eyes (or cast your gaze downwards if preferred). In the meditation you aim to keep your mind steady on one thing, usually the feeling of your breath somewhere in your body, and whenever your mind wanders away, the mind can be recruited to briefly step in and label the type of thought you’re having. For example, you can say “obsessing over details” or “negative self-judgment” or “revisiting the past”, and then you return your focus to back to your breath. This is repeated every time you notice your mind has wandered simply as an act of recognition. Don’t be discouraged if you repeatedly do this, that’s totally normal and it’s the important part of the training.